In October 1777, two years after the outbreak of the American Revolution, the new United States' army gained its first notable success against British forces at Saratoga. In the wake of this humiliation, the major European powers, led by France, decided to ally themselves to the infant American Republic in the hope of making territorial gains at England's expense and, following France's lead in 1778, most of Britain's neighbors had joined the alliance against her by 1781. One of the nations most anxious to regain some of its former maritime supremacy was the Netherlands; however her naval power had been in decline since 1712 and she was no match for the Royal Navy. The Fourth Anglo-Dutch War was fought mainly in European waters, but also in the Indian Ocean, between the British and Dutch Indian colonies. Many Dutch traders were taken as prizes by enterprising young English captains, and the single ship action shown in this painting must be one of these. Presumably with the prize money the English captain would have commissioned one of the most famous artists of the day, Francis Holman, to portray his triumph.
Francis Holman is relatively little known despite his popularity in the late eighteenth century. He exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1774-1784, when he lived at an address in Shadwell, London. Although in the main a ship's portraitist, his real passion was for large sweeping naval battles and skirmishes that were especially prevalent in the 1780s. At that time he was also tutor to the more famous Thomas Luny (1759-1837), whose style is very similar.